Black Grouse in north Wales

Well, this post is rather late, and not on a Monday either! Doing what feels like two jobs certainly isn’t easy, and I haven’t had a proper sit down yet with all my photos, but I thought I’d share my experience with you lovely people anyway.

Two weekends ago two friends and I embarked on the mission to find some black grouse in north Wales. This was somewhat of a gamble as the weather had only just warmed up, and the place we wanted to go to had been inaccessible until just before as a result of that cold snap and freak snow we had here in the UK. It was heading towards the latter end of the black grouse lekking season, which is what we really wanted to see, but we still managed to catch a good glimpse of it with most behaviours being delayed by a couple of weeks.

Black grouse squaring off

Black grouse males (black cocks) squaring off

Whats this thing you call a black grouse?

Black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) are game birds also known as ghosts of the forest. They breed on the ground on moorlands close to woodlands, and are found throughout northern Eurasia. The males’ appearance is rather unusual, with black feathers except for what can only be described as red eyebrows, white bum plumage (to lower the scientific bar momentarily) and a long tail that looks forked in flight. They are quite common throughout Europe, but are of high conservation concern in the UK as they declined rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries – and if there’s one thing British people do well is worship their rare species. The reason for this decline is, of course, loss of habitat as they prefer a complex mosaic of farmland, moorland, blanket bog which were lost to sheep farming, conifer planting and burning. Not only did they lose their living quarters but also their primary food source – heather, bilberry and cotton grass – became very sparse. There are several remaining pockets around the UK: north Wales, Cumbria, and the safe haven for a lot of British wildlife that is Scotland.

RSPB Black Grouse distribution map in the UK

I’m sorry, did you say lekking?

Yes, lekking is the mating display they perform using their haunting calls (hence their nickname ghosts of the forest) and their aforementioned white bum feathers. The male fans out these pure white feathers, bubbles and screeches at the top of its voice, and struts his stuff to impress the females and show up the other males by charging at each other like raging bulls. They tend to do this in the wee hours of the morning (starting pre-dawn) and continue for a couple of hours between late March and late April. In 2011 there were 320 lekking males in Wales, which was a record since they started counting in the early 1990s – great news then!

Black grouse lekking position

Black grouse lekking position

And your trip?

I’m glad you asked! We knew that the RSPB had a hide in Coed Llandega forest, which is otherwise known as a hot-spot for mountain bikers, oddly enough. So Saturday morning 2am, off the three of us went in my new friend, Olly’s, land rover. Big beast of a car, but perfect for driving around the lanes of north Wales. He was a champion driving us all through the night from Bristol to the grouse site, where we soon enough spotted the lekking, but were a bit too late and missed most of the spectacle by the time we could get remotely close enough for a good shot.

We quickly went off to find a nearby campsite in Llandegla, with great facilities btw!, and put up our 12-man tent. Way to big for the three of us, but it meant we each got our own pod.

A nice nap later, we explored the area including Llagdollen, a stunning little village tucked away in the Dee valley. If you have the chance to go, you won’t regret it. We spent the rest of the day doing some more location scouting and the boys let their testosterone out by driving the car on narrow, steep, windy lanes.
The next morning it was another early start, and we got to the site by about 4.30, trying to get in position in the dark. They had already started lekking but seemed undisturbed by us, and we took up positions to shoot for the next few hours. Although the females were just behind the ridge, we managed to catch some good bull behaviour and bum feathers up in the air.

Three black grouse

If this image had been in focus I would’ve been so happy!

Black grouse males in contact

If I could’ve done some photographic gardening here that would have been nice…

Black grouse in flight

Black grouse in flight

Photobombing goose

This goose all of a sudden flew in the shot and did some true photobombing. The black grouse then tried to do its lek on the goose only to find out it didn’t work.

I really stretched my new Nikon D7100 to the limit and took photos at very large ISO numbers to begin with, slowly reducing it as it got lighter and lighter. Not too bad, if you take into account they were all shot at f/2.8 so the background noise isn’t only due to the ISO change.

Nikon D7100 ISO 4000 at 4:50am

ISO 4000 at 4:50am

ISO 1250 at 5:20am

ISO 1250 at 5:20am

(All of the above were at ISO 320)

After another little rest we packed up our stuff and on our way down we stopped just outside of Forden to see if we could find some hares. I have seen some before but never realised just how big they actually are! We didn’t see any at first, but after trying the field closest to the car again we quickly spotted something big and brown on a field. Using our best fieldcraft, we got into position several times, with the final time being so well hidden (or the hare being so distracted) that one came very close before it even realised we were there!

Coed llandegla-6 Coed llandegla-8

What a great way to end a fabulous weekend photographing with some cool photography buddies. As unsociable as this sport may be most of the time, when we geeks get together we have a proper geekfest and it is a blast.

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